Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon

‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

Moon, by atomicshark @ flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0

Moon, by atomicshark @ flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon

  1. Interesting what she says about needing experience, and it’s not uncommon – I went to a writing workshop during the week and Paddy O’Reilly said the same thing. Yet where does this leave Miles Franklin, with something to say at 19, and the Granta Awards?

  2. Good question. I thought about this a bit as I wrote it. I was thinking it might partly be to do with how we define experience. I’m not sure we should see it quite as Youth and Innocence vs Age and Experience? Miles Franklin had certainly experienced what she wrote – talk about autobiographical! Could we see it a bit like the way Murakami talks about talent and focus/endurance? He basically said the less talent you have the more you need to focus and have endurance/work at it. Perhaps it’s the same about experience and imagination – the more you can imagine (and I’d include the ability to “empathise” in my definition of imagination) the less you need to experience? The other question is do they mean you have to experience what you write about or is it more that you have to have experienced life which includes being around other people and their experiences? Jolley is fairly broad – she says “some kind of genuine experience”. I don’t think there’s one answer to this, do you? (BTW I’ve heard a bit about Paddy O’Reilly but have never read her. Was the workshop good?)

  3. Pingback: My Father’s Moon, by ELizabeth Jolley, guest review by Margaret (Meg) Broughton #BookReview | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Pingback: Wrapping up Elizabeth Jolley Week at ANZ LitLovers | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  5. My experience of Elizabeth Jolley: one of my ESL students recently bought a house in Elizabeth Jolley Crescent here in Canberra. I recognised it as an Australian author’s name so I researched her online, with a plan to use her as a discussion topic in a lesson. The first thing I read was a controversy about her family. The second thing I read was an excellent review of “House of Fiction”, a book by Susan Swingler, the daughter of Elizabeth Jolley’s husband from his first marriage, which is about Jolley and her husband making up stuff and family members believing it … I then borrowed “My Father’s Moon” from the library just before the lockdown started 9 weeks ago, and can’t get into it because the mentions of babies and friends and husbands and affairs remind me too much of Swingler’s memoire. I can’t return the book to the library because the return shoot is covered up for the lockdown, so “My Father’s Moon” has sat on the front seat of my car for the past week. And I haven’t been able to tutor my student because we can’t meet in our usual café. The end result is that I know about Elizabeth Jolley’s family drama but I don’t know much about her writing. She’s turned out to be an unsuitable topic for a migrant English lesson.

    • Haha Trish, I feel your pain. Fortunately, I read most of my Jolleys before the story of her family came out. I have Swingler’s book, but I haven’t read it. There is a biography out, by Brian Dibble, that is probably better to read. Swingler of course has her own perspective, and I really feel for her (and her Mum). The whole situation is very strange. Jolley, did, however, also grow up in difficult times so I think there is a whole picture there that we’ll never know.

      I love her writing – but it can be dark. And, is probably not good for a migrant English lesson. Her language – dark wit, irony, allusions etc – probably make her unsuitable. So, good call I’d say, though I think that’s great that you had the idea to do it. It would have been such a lovely connection to build on. I didn’t know we had a street named for her. Clearly a new suburb as she didn’t die that long ago?

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